Thursday, December 24, 2015

One for the Children: Isaiah 9:2-7 - The Nativity of Our Lord

Christmas Eve 1928 by Don O'Brien.  Creative commons image on flickr
2The people who walked in darkness
  have seen a great light;
 those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
  on them light has shined.
3You have multiplied the nation,
  you have increased its joy;
 they rejoice before you
  as with joy at the harvest,
  as people exult when dividing plunder.
4For the yoke of their burden,
  and the bar across their shoulders,
  the rod of their oppressor,
  you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
  and all the garments rolled in blood
  shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
  a son given to us;
 authority rests upon his shoulders;
  and he is named
 Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
  Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually,
  and there shall be endless peace
 for the throne of David and his kingdom.
  He will establish and uphold it
 with justice and with righteousness
  from this time onward and forevermore.
 The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
We say “rules are made to be broken…”  If that’s true, I will also say “signs are made to be ignored.”

Maybe it’s because signs are confusing or misleading…  Maybe it’s because they’re downright wrong.  But maybe we’re the problem.  The truth we need is literally staring us in the face, and we take no notice of it…

This begs the question: what kind of a sign is a baby in a manger?  Angels appear to the shepherds in the fields, and tell them that this is the sign that God has given the world a Savior.  The heavens are torn open, a multitude of heavenly host sings praises to God—and then they disappear.  The shepherds set out, and amazingly, they see what they were promised.  But there was no fanfare here; just a newborn baby lying in a manger before his parents.

Go back several hundred years to the prophet Isaiah, and he speaks of the very same sign: a baby.  In the Old Testament, God’s signs were earthquakes, peals of thunder and lightning, pillars of cloud and fire.  But now, the sign is something that happens every single day. 

So what sign do we have that Jesus is in the world?  That salvation has come?  Is God doing something to make our gathering here tonight anything more than a glorified birthday party?

We need to go back into the Bible and see that during the history of God’s people, usually when circumstances were at their worst, God would shatter the darkness by the birth of a baby.  For Sarah and Abraham, it was Isaac.  For the Israelites in Egypt, it was Moses.  During the dark ages of the judges, it was Samuel.  First in the New Testament is John the Baptist.  And now, Jesus—lying in the cold darkness of the manger, among the stench of the animals and the shepherds, in the shadow of the evil political, social, and religious empires that would oppose him.  God is a helpless and fragile little baby. 

It will be another thirty years before Jesus begins his ministry and fulfills all things necessary for our salvation.  In the meantime, God’s salvation will be fulfilled through the faithful obedience of Mary and Joseph; the faithful testimony of the shepherds and the Magi; and through many others we will never know about…  Without them, there’d be proclamation of God’s truth; no cross, no resurrection, no Church, no new life. 

So now I go back to my prior question: what sign do we have that Jesus is in the world?  The answer is simple: little children.  They are signs of new life from God.  They are the future.  But they are weak.  They are vulnerable.  They are completely dependent.  They will be nothing apart the faithful, loving care of those of us who are not children. 

For as much as we love our children and celebrate their births, the future has never been more bleak for the generations that will follow us.  Will they have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, or fertile fields a stable climate for their crops?  Will they have safe and effective schools that will form them into productive members of society?  Right now, half of the children in our community experience food insecurity.  Drugs and violence infest and streets.  There’s nowhere to go for fun and recreation.  Our children need families, friends, and neighbors to love and look after them.  They need to feel safe.  They need to eat!  And—they need churches where they can learn life’s most important truths; be loved unconditionally, and know beyond the shadow of a doubt how much they matter to God.  They need people like us to shepherd them to Jesus Christ.

Christmas is for children.  But our celebrations tonight are little more than pointless pageantry unless we commit ourselves to nurturing and loving our children, just as Mary and Joseph did for Jesus.  As the body of Christ, we are parents and shepherds to all God’s children.  We become the signs of God’s loving care to our children, just as they are signs from God to us. 


It’s hard to be a child right now.  It’s hard to be a parent and a grandparent; a teacher; a mentor; a neighbor.  But it is totally within our grasp to make life beautiful for them—and empower them to build a better world for their children.  Let us do everything in our power to see to it that the generations to come will journey to Bethlehem as we do tonight, to behold God’s salvation wrapped in bands of cloth, and lying in a manger.  Because: Christmas is for children.  

Sunday, December 6, 2015

An Advent to Remember: Luke 3:1-6 - Second Sunday of Advent

jordan river by Eli Duke.  Creative Commons image on flickr
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
 “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
 ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
  make his paths straight.
5Every valley shall be filled,
  and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
 and the crooked shall be made straight,
  and the rough ways made smooth;

6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”
How are you going to remember this Christmas?  What’s going to make 2015 stand out in your memory?

For me, Elizabeth, and Becca, we’ll remember this as our first Christmas together as a family.  For many, this Christmas will be marked by the celebration of new births, marriages, or adoptions.

On the other hand, many others will remember it as the first without a loved one.  It will be remembered by the ATI lockout, or for the economic hardships affecting so many.  This Christmas will arrive on the heels of the worst refugee crisis since WW2.  All over the world, people have no food, no place to go, nowhere to belong.

If we think our times are tough, we can only imagine how difficult the times must have been when John the Baptist began his ministry.  We know that simply by the names that Luke drops at the beginning of today’s Gospel:
[It was] “the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…”

These weren’t nice men.  They wielded power and privilege through force, enslavement, and murder.  The mere mention of these names stoked fear and foreboding in the hearts of most people.

But in the shadows of these great evils, a man receives the Word of the Lord in the wilderness.  His name is John, son of Zechariah.  He goes all throughout “the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

Through John, God speaks—and people listen.  God begins turning the tide against evil, though not in the way you’d expect it.  It all starts with the ordinary people who hear God’s Word; who receive the gift of baptism, who are then radically transformed by God’s saving grace (what we call repentance).   These are the ones who will see the salvation of God, by faith.  These are the ones who will see beyond their fears to the God who loves them. 

Let’s be clear: the bloodthirsty rulers won’t be going anywhere.  They’ll all die eventually, and be replaced by men who are every bit as ruthless. 

Things are no different for us.  Who wouldn’t rejoice to see ISIS lay down their weapons and become a massive humanitarian force?  Who wouldn’t celebrate a cure for cancer?  Who wouldn’t love to see the mills and factories throw open their doors and offer safe and meaningful work to everyone who needs it?

I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but these aren’t going to happen, at least not in the short run…

Yet today, God’s Word announces that suffering, pain, and evil will end.  The world will be at peace.  We’re not there yet.  But God’s salvation is for now.    Salvation begins with the forgiveness of sins liberating us from our sin and turning to our God.  Today, death and evil have no ultimate power over us.  The Lord is come.

The challenge before us then is to prepare ourselves and our lives to receive this salvation; something that will not happen if we continue on as usual, losing ourselves in the chaos of what Christmas has come to be about in our society.  And let’s be frank—if we think Christmas is all about the glory of fancy presents and family togetherness like we see on TV, we’re all going to find ourselves disappointed sooner or later…

We need a wilderness place like John the Baptist had; a place of quiet communion of prayer and study of God’s Word, so that God may speak.  But we also need to be every bit as ready to be changed.  God’s will is for you and I to be filled to the full with God’s saving grace.  This will hardly mean a return to business as usual.  Instead, we are sent back into the world so that God’s grace to us may overflow to our neighbors “who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death…”

We’ll all remember this Christmas for the things that happen to us, be they good or bad.  But this time of Advent is a time for us to be made ready for what Christ’s birth is meant to be.  God’s love comes to you wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a manger…  God’s love comes nailed to a tree.  God’s love comes in a Savior who hears your prayers and dwells with you by faith.

So will this be the Christmas that your faith is born anew?  Where you experience his presence like never before?

Will this be the Christmas when someone sees the love of Jesus because of you? 

Will this be the Christmas that hope and the peace that passes understanding overshadows the pains of the year past and the fears of the year to come?


So let us pray God’s grace to make this an Advent to Remember, for God’s will to be done, that we see the salvation of God.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

God Wins: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 - Christ the King Sunday


In Prayer by Brett Davis.  Creative commons image on flickr
  9 As I watched,
   thrones were set in place,
     and an Ancient One took his throne,
   his clothing was white as snow,
     and the hair of his head like pure wool;
   his throne was fiery flames,
     and its wheels were burning fire.
  10 A stream of fire issued
     and flowed out from his presence.
   A thousand thousands served him,
     and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
   The court sat in judgment,
     and the books were opened.
13 As I watched in the night visions,
   I saw one like a human being
     coming with the clouds of heaven.
   And he came to the Ancient One
     and was presented before him.
  14 To him was given dominion
     and glory and kingship,
   that all peoples, nations, and languages
     should serve him.
   His dominion is an everlasting dominion
     that shall not pass away,
   and his kingship is one
     that shall never be destroyed.
(NRSV)
They saw their homes burned, their property confiscated, and their loved ones tortured and slain.  Their houses of worship were defiled and their faith outlawed under penalty of death.  Those who could flee did so; those who could not were persecuted and enslaved.

I’m describing the plight of the Jews in the year 167 B.C.E. at the hands of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid Dynasty, a successor regime to the Empire of Alexander the Great.  The Old Testament book of Daniel was written during this time…

But I could also be describing the plight of early Christians, particularly the seven churches in Asia Minor for whom the Book of Revelation was written. 

"Antiokhos IV" by Jniemenmaa (talk) 08:46, 20 July 2009 (UTC), own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons
I could be describing the plight of Jews at the hands of the Nazis in Europe, or the present plight of Christians, Jews, and Muslims at the hands of militant groups such as ISIS or Boko Haram.  History has a tragic way of repeating itself…

To truly understand what God is speaking through today’s Scriptures, we must imagine ourselves as these innocent people (if we can).  At the same time, we’re called to a humble gratitude for the relative comfort, security, and prosperity we enjoy as Americans—because life could not have been more different for those to whom the Book of Daniel was written. 

Suddenly, the Jews found themselves the target of state-sponsored persecution, enslavement, and murder at the behest of Antiochus Epiphanies.  He went as far as to erect a shrine to Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple.  For the Jews, it was as though God was dead and all the armies of hell were unleashed against them. 

This is terror—just as it exists in our world.

But today, God’s Word is a reality check to evildoers and their victims: Their days are numbered…

The glories enjoyed by those who wield power through violence and terror will soon fade.  Daniel speaks of an “Ancient One” who will pronounce a fiery judgment against the evil empires and their subjects.  All power and authority shall be given to a new ruler who will reign with peace and justice.  Though that day is a long way off, one thing is clear: terror and evil have a definite end. 

In the meantime, Jesus is in the midst of the pain.  The cross is proof positive of this—Jesus suffered and died by the worst evil that humanity could dish out.  All the while, he cried out “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do…”  So when it’s us, suffering evil—Jesus is suffering with us.  Conversely, when we’re the ones committing evil, Jesus is crying out for God to forgive us.  Either way, God always has the last word. 

For thousands of years, the evildoers have tried to destroy God’s people, just as they crucified Jesus.  They all fail—because these monstrous evils are not part of God’s plan.  God’s plan is life.  Our lives and loved ones, property and possessions can all be taken away from us; our arms and legs may be in chains—but we are God’s.  And we are loved. 

Even as we face the threats of terror and death every single day, we still can rest secure…  Security comes in believing that we have been baptized with Jesus into death, thereby we are baptized into his resurrection.  God wins.

God wins as when we enter into a daily communion of worship, thanksgiving, and prayer—confident that we can approach the throne of grace in every time of need.  God wins when we live as witnesses—seizing every opportunity to do good to each other; praying for and with each other; and encouraging one another’s faith.  God wins as we strangers to share in our belonging.  God wins when we meet real needs.  God wins as we forgive sins.  And even if we die, God wins—as we enter into life beyond death. 

As I said before, it’s a scary time to be a Christian.  It’s a scary time to be a human being.  Terror is hell and so is the war we’re trying to wage against it.  But terror’s greatest threat isn’t to our bodies, but to our humanity.  Fear can easily erase all compassion, patience, and forgiveness.  In the fight for survival, good people can become every bit as evil as the terrorists.

Terror is equally threatening to our faith—because it’s never easy to trust an invisible God in the face of visible evil. 


But faith that anticipates God’s victory receives God’s victory.  God wins because goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; peace is stronger than war; faith is stronger than terror.  This is God’s world; we are God’s people; life and love is God’s will.  God wins.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Stronger Than Stone: Mark 13:1-8 - Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Prayer in Crack of the Wailing Wall by Janine on flickr
1 As [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (NRSV)
Earlier this week, millions of Christians around the country were seeing red…

The global coffee chain Starbucks unveiled its “holiday” paper cup design: plain red.  In years past, the cups have been illustrated with Christmas tree branches, snowflakes, and ice-skaters.  But not this year…

One internet evangelist posted a video on Facebook accusing the coffee giant of “taking Christ and Christmas off of their cups,” because “they hate Jesus.”

This worried me, because we just ordered new paper cups for our church—and we love Jesus, but he’s not on the cups!  [I should point out that baby Jesus never appeared on Starbucks’ cups to begin with.]

Jesus may be “the reason for the season,” but any more, Christmas in America isn’t really about Jesus. 

This is happening as part of the larger decline of the institutional Church in this country that we see in the decline of church attendance and the closing of congregations.  Sunday isn’t the day of rest it used to be.  The Church no longer has the moral control of society it once did.  The future has never been more uncertain for our congregation or for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Juan R. Cuadra - Own work on Wikipedia Commons
But this pales in comparison to the crisis on the horizon for Christians and Jews in Jesus’ day.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are departing the magnificent Jerusalem Temple, built by Herod the Great.  Its gargantuan size was matched only by the fact that much of it was covered in pure gold.  Surely, Jesus caught his disciples off guard when he told them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

But this isn’t the worst of it…  Jesus warns his disciples of false Messiahs, wars, earthquakes, and famines. 

As history would have it, the Roman Emperor Nero destroys Temple forty years later.  It won’t be long before major persecutions break out against Christians. 

Make no mistake—Jesus is building his Church during the worst possible time.  It’s going to be hell to be a Christian.  But, by the grace of God, the Church prevails.  The martyrs prevail.  Not even the Roman Empire can stand against the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom.  In our world today, the Church is flourishing in parts of the world where Christianity is illegal and persecutions are widespread.  The Church is flourishing amid famines and violence.

So why is the Church declining in a wealthy country of religious liberty where we remain the cultural majority?

My take on it is this: The Kingdom of God will always triumph over every foe, except for the Church…  If the American Church is going to crumble and decline, it’s going to be because of our own complacency.  This will happen when we let our Bibles get dusty and start listening to false teachers, whose teachings have nothing to do with the gospel of the crucified and living Christ; when other stuff begins to take priority over serving our neighbors in need.  The Church will crumble as we give up meeting together, and stop teaching the faith to our children.  The Church will crumble as individuals and factions battle it out for authority and control; as we sink more time and energy into maintaining the status quo rather than doing ministry.

If there’s anything to be learned from the destruction of the Temple, it is this: Jesus does not build his Church with stones.  He builds it with people. The Kingdom of God is built upon relationships of mutual belonging to Christ and to each other.  It rises as the Holy Spirit calls and gathers us
·         To worship and praise
·         To pray with and pray for
·         To teach the Christian faith to our children and to each other
·         To encourage and embrace the poor
·         To meet real needs
·         To work for peace and justice in all the world

It’s a difficult time to be a Christian.  It’s a difficult time to be a human being, especially as nations rise against nations; where there are earthquakes and famines.  Jesus said these are the beginning of birth pangs. 

What is being born to us is new life.  The proof is in the pudding—that the Body of Christ is flourishing in the places, among the people where you’d least expect it.  The Holy Spirit rests upon us to deliver us in all our trials and give us the power to make a difference.  Even if our congregations and our very lives crumble to pieces, Jesus will still be here. 

Today is the day to hold fast to these promises; to be bold in approaching the throne of grace; to be courageous in proclaiming our faith. 

Together, in Christ, we are stronger than stone.  Very truly I tell you, an army of devils cannot tear down what Christ builds up. 



Sunday, November 8, 2015

Poverty Matters: Mark 12:38-44 - Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Old Widow by PREM KUMAR MARNI.  Creative Commons image on flickr
38 As [Jesus] taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (NRSV)
I wasn’t in history class that I first learned about the Great Depression...  I learned about it from my grandparents who lived it.

My grandmother on my mother’s side grew up in a small coal mining town called Crucible.

Her father was a coal miner—and in those days, the mining company was your whole world.  They owned the house you lived in and the stores you shopped in...  The miner and his family, on the other hand, owned practically nothing.  And the wages were anything but fair.  A miner was paid based upon the amount of coal he dug out of the ground—and if he didn’t mine enough, he would be in debt to the mining company for the cost of the oil for his miner’s hat light.

He was never without work during the Depression—but one day, the family was down to its last dime...  With that, he purchased a can of baked beans from the company store.  That was their dinner—and they ate with no promise that there would be food on the table tomorrow...

I’ve never had an experience like this—so it’s hard for me to fully understand the plight of the widow at the temple…

Jesus is seated in the temple with his disciples, opposite the treasury.  Many rich people make extravagant contributions.  Then a poor widow comes along who gives two small copper coins.  In today’s money, it would amount to about a dollar or maybe two. 

Jesus makes a very simple analysis of the situation: the wealthy give of their abundance; the widow gives of her poverty—which amounts to everything she had.  Her whole life…

There’s so much tragedy in this short story…  In Jesus’ day, if you were a widow, you didn’t have your husband to provide for you.  Most widows were forced into a beggars’ existence.  But before she comes along, Jesus condemns the religious leaders at the temple, who wear extravagant clothes, demand peoples’ honor, and show off their religiousness for everyone to see.  As teachers and experts in the Law of Moses, they surely had read the numerous passages from Deuteronomy in which God commands that widows, orphans, and foreigners be looked after and provided with the necessities of life that they cannot obtain for themselves.  In reality, they were devouring widows’ houses, instead of building them up…

Sadly, poverty in today’s world bears a stark resemblance to the widow’s plight.  The statistics spouted off by politicians and charity organizations only begin to tell the story of human suffering that is everywhere present, yet mostly invisible.  Unless you’ve lived it, it’s unimaginable having to live each day with the very real possibility that you could be hungry and out in the street.  Unless you’ve lived it, it’s unimaginable having to choose which of life’s necessities you will do without, because you can’t pay for them.  What makes matters worse is the cruel and dehumanizing perceptions we impose on the poor: that they’re immoral, lazy parasites feeding off of honest, hard-working people… 

At the same time, we fail to recognize what’s true for all of us: that wealth, health, relationships, reputation, and everything else we build our lives upon can disappear in an instant.  There isn’t a single one of us who can claim a righteousness that surpasses everyone else.  We can’t rise above our mortality.  In the end, we’re all beggars before a holy God.

But here is what makes the story of the poor widow good news for everybody: Jesus notices!  Her poverty matters to Jesus—and so does her faith.  She has basically nothing to give, but gives it anyway.  She drops her two copper coins into God’s hands, and with them, her very life.  And God, who raised Jesus from the dead, can take that nothing and create new life.  Her simple gift will forever be a testimony to the faithfulness and mercy of God, especially in the face of overwhelming need.

Jesus challenges us by her faith in three ways:

Without question, the widow is living what is for the rest of us the sum of all our fears.  She is destitute; forced into a beggars’ existence.  We fear poverty perhaps even more than we fear death —and it is this fear that drives so much of our greed, such that we hoard and squander our abundance while others do without.  But we all have to make a choice: do we hold it all back and live in fear?  Or do live in faith, and say “it all belongs to God?” 

We are all one breath away from being destitute—but regardless of if it happens, or we’re already there, our lives matter to God.  Our needs matter to God.  It’s God’s will that your needs be met.  And no matter what, you can never fall out of God’s love and care. 

But as great a promise as this is, it’s just noise unless we put the widow’s generosity into practice.  We must put off all pretense about our strength, ability, and self-sufficiency and own our poverty before God and each other.   We’re all “have-nots” without Jesus.  Yet we have been gathered together into one body to belong to Jesus and to each other.  God’s gifts are present in the time, talents, and treasures in our individual possession.  We can see to it that there is no one in need among us and that no one is forgotten.  Let’s not forget that God’s gifts do include those persons, who on the surface, may have nothing to offer.  They may very well be as angels who build you up in faith and reveal to you the face of Jesus. 


There is no stronger evidence of the presence of Christ when a community like ours embraces with love those who are most helpless.  

Sunday, November 1, 2015

From Grief to Resurrection: John 11:32-44 - All Saints Day

Autumn Bench by Steve Dean.  Creative commons image on flickr
32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (NRSV)
My grandmother lives in a house that was built by my great grandfather in 1950.  As a child, I would visit him—and his home was always filled with the combined aroma of coffee and the cigarettes he smoked.

He died twenty-nine years ago—but every now and then, when I visit my grandmother, that familiar aroma will appear for a fraction of an instant—bringing with it a treasure’s trove of memories…

That’s the power of our senses. 

But sometimes, our senses will connect us to more troubling realities …

Today’s Gospel paints a powerful sensory picture of the horrors of death.  There’s Mary’s bitter cries of lament, that if Jesus had come sooner, her brother would not have died.  Jesus himself literally trembles with grief, unable to hold back his weeping for his friends and all the mourners looking on.  There’s the murmuring of the crowds as some doubt and others defend Jesus. 

When they reach the tomb, they’re met with the cold lifelessness of the stone, and the ghastly stench of death.

Most of us have lived what these persons experienced.  Any time when we think of death, we think of at least one person we’ve loved and lost.  There’s the event of death—which may have come in the form of a prolonged illness, a sudden medical emergency, or a tragic accident.  But there’s also the reality of death—which we see in that empty space at our dining table or church pew, or hear in the bitter silence of solitude.  Our hearts and minds ache as we ask what we could’ve done to prevent that death; as we harbor resentment towards persons who could’ve done something but didn’t; as we question why God permitted it to happen… 

You see, death impacts the living every bit as much as the dead.  Our lives are built on the foundation of relationships—and when one of those relationships ends, for any reason, life isn’t the same.  The brokenness that follows in the aftermath is what we call grief.  Grieving is the difficult and lengthy process of becoming whole again, even though life will never be the same again.  Only trouble is, our society has forgotten how to grieve.

Employers rarely grant any kind of bereavement leave that extends past a day or two.  Funerals are occurring less and less often; in part because they’re very expensive; but sometimes because people don’t want them.

Anymore, our culture makes it seem as if it’s wrong to grieve; that grief is for the weak.  We say “God helps those who help themselves,” as if to imply that you should take personal responsibility to get over it; get back to work and get back to life as if nothing happened. 

We get so wrapped up in our own lives that we don’t really care for the grieving.  We may attend a funeral visitation or send a casserole or a sympathy card, which are helpful.  But nothing can replace what Jesus ultimately gives to Lazarus’ grieving family—which, ironically, isn’t resuscitating their dead brother.  Jesus walks with them into the heart of their grief.

That is what we must do when it comes to grief.  We mustn’t deny it or minimize it.  When loss of any kind happens, it impacts all aspects of our being—because you’re not made of stone.  You must face the reality of grief head-on.  And you have to be realistic—because you can never replace the people you’ve lost.  You can’t raise the dead.  The grief will always be there—but it is possible to face it, carry it, and live an abundance of life in spite of it.

Jesus goes into the grief with us.  He knows the pain of losing a loved one—and he knows the pain of losing his own life.  The cross assures us of this.  By faith, we cling to the promise that death will not have the last word.

Yet even though Christ goes with you, you can’t go through grief totally on your own.  How can you know the love of Jesus if there’s no one loving you?  One of our basic responsibilities to each other as a child of God is to bear one another’s burdens.  When it comes to grief, we do this by giving the gift of presence.  This is hard, because we think that to help someone, you have to fix them, which you can do by saying all the right words and doing all the right things.  Truth is, the best thing you can do for someone is just to be there, and perhaps not say a word.  It’s especially helpful to throw away all our culture’s clich├ęs and one liners, like “God needed another angel,” or “she’s in a better place.”  Don’t say “I’ll be there.”  Just be there!


We are, after all, a communion of saints.  We gather to pray, worship, and serve with complete confidence that we do so with Jesus and all who’ve gone before us.  But we gather for the sake of each other as well.  We will all find ourselves in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  But when we go together, we go with confidence that Jesus goes there, too—and that Jesus can create new life in the most desperate times and places.  In the Valley, Jesus will shine the light of resurrection—for even as grief is great, in Christ it’s only temporary.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Dawning of Truth: Mark 10:46-52 - Reformation Sunday

Sunrise over Church Steeple by Alvin Trusty.  Creative Commons image on flickr
46As [Jesus] and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (NRSV)
During the lifetime of Martin Luther lived an astronomer and mathematician by the name of Nicolas Copernicus.  While Luther is known for the “radical” ideas he nailed to the Church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, Copernicus is known for the “radical” idea that the earth revolved around the sun (and not the other way around.)  His revolutionary ideas didn’t ruffle that many feathers until a pupil by the name of Galileo Galilei put these ideas to print. 

Officially, the Roman Church held that the sun revolved around the earth—and when one of Galileo’s books on the subject was perceived be mocking the pope for believing the contrary, Galileo was branded a heretic and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. 

It’s laughable to consider how hard people held onto ideas that run contrary to what we call undeniable fact, but Jack Nicholson was right about truth: we can’t handle it…  We don’t like it.  We don’t want to hear it.

Why? Because it defies what we wish was true!

I love the old expression, “my mind us made up—don’t confuse me with facts!” 

Deep in our hearts we possess a truth filter—such that, whenever any bit of information is revealed to us, we receive or reject it.  If we understand it; if it’s beneficial to us; if it’s in line with our previous knowledge and experience; we call it truth.  If we do not understand it; if it threatens us; if it contradicts our knowledge and experience; we reject it. 

In sum, we look within ourselves for truth.  We believe truth is something we can possess.  Yet in so doing, we become blind to truth that comes not from within, but from beyond…

Bartimaeus, on the other hand, has much in common with many persons I know who suffer blindness: even though they cannot see, they are not blind to the world around them.  Bartimaeus is the first person in the Gospel of Mark to recognize Jesus as the Son of David.  Doubtless he had been taught what God had promised in the Scriptures: that the Messiah would be descendant of David.  Therefore, he saw what many would deny about Jesus’ identity.  When Jesus restores his sight, immediately he sees that everything he believed about Jesus was indeed true. 

This is what God does.  God doesn’t keep truth a secret.  God reveals truth—and gives us faith to receive it.  Some of the truths are not so nice—in particular, the truth of our sin.  God’s judgment brings light upon the darkest thoughts and desires of our heart—and brings to light the destruction we visit upon the people and the world God created.  God’s truth reveals our vulnerabilities and imperfections, shattering like glass our pride and self-righteousness. 

But the truth about our sin is met with the truth of God’s grace.  Our sins are forgiven and our guilt is banished from God’s sight.  We are loved and accepted just as we are.  What’s more is that each and every one of us is blessed with spiritual gifts by which God reveals his love to the world.  Each of our lives has a sacred purpose by which God will answer human brokenness and need through our good works.  And, God’s ultimate purpose for our lives and this world is resurrection.  Yet truth does not stop here—because God is not done speaking…
God is not silent as our world is being torn apart by greed, violence, and apathy.  God’s announces mercy and compassion towards the poor, the vulnerable, and the lost.  God’s announces judgment against those who use power and privilege for their own benefit; who turn a blind eye to human suffering; and to those who arrogantly believe they can possess all truth and righteousness.

God is speaking as we struggle beneath the burdens of sickness, grief, and uncertainty about the future.  God is speaking to our church as we exist in a rapidly-changing world, and need God to inspire and equip us for new ways of speaking God’s truth.

God is speaking as the Church itself struggles to understand God’s will as we weigh difficult and controversial questions about our practices and teachings.  God will still be speaking even when we vehemently disagree.

When God speaks, one thing is certain: things change.  People change.  Reformation happens.  New life is born.

No matter how much we learn or how wise we become, we will never know all there is to know; nor will we fully understand the wonders of God’s grace or explain the mysteries of his mercy.  We will be blind to God’s truth if we believe that we can fully possess it.


But if we come before God seeking truth, laying down our crowns with our burdens, failings, and frustrations, God will speak.  God truth will be confirmed as we act and build our lives upon it.  We will be a people and a church, reformed and reborn in the truth of Jesus Christ as Lord.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The American Dream, Redefined: Mark 10:35-45 - Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

White Picket Fence by roujo. Creative commons image on flickr.com

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (NRSV)
They’re calling it The American Dream.

It’s a $2 billion, 4.8-million-square-foot super-mall under construction just ten miles from New York City in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  In addition to over four hundred retail shops and restaurants, it will also include a themed amusement and water park, an aquarium, and an eighteen-story indoor ski slope. 

It’s slated to open in 2017—but it’s been under construction since 2003.  The entire project was put on hold during the recession, as the developer went into bankruptcy.  (It’s worth pointing out that this project was conceived by the very same firm that built the Pittsburgh Mills mall, and we all know how that’s turned out…)

Not too long ago, a new firm picked up the unfinished project and work has resumed. 

But the big question on everyone’s mind: when it’s built, will people come?

At the symbolic level, its success or failure may indicate whether or not the proverbial American Dream is still alive…

So what is the American Dream, anyway?  Looking at this, we’re a long way off from the ideal of hard work and persistence leading to success and prosperity; and equal opportunity for all… 

But could we, as Christians living in America, dare to seize upon and project a profoundly new vision to our society?

What if we defined the dream in terms of relationships instead of wealth?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples James and John had a dream.  Brazenly, ask Jesus to “give them what they want.”  Honor and glory is what they desire: a seat at Jesus’ right and a seat at his left.  They believe they’re worthy—because they say they are willing to drink the cup that Jesus drinks, and be baptized with Jesus’ baptism.  We can’t know for sure, but they’ve probably already forgotten everything Jesus had spoken about his suffering and death.

Either way, Jesus teaches his disciples that what James and John are dreaming of is very much of this world: a world where power and privilege is used to serve the interests of a fortunate few; where status and stuff are the hallmarks of a good life.

Very little has changed in the last two thousand years.  But what is different about our place and time is the individualism: for even while it is good and proper that our culture celebrates hard work, ingenuity, and tenacity, we deny our basic responsibility toward our neighbor.  There’s precious little sympathy—or charity—for persons in need.  We say “God helps those who help themselves,” which is not in the Bible at all.  Human life cannot flourish when it’s every person for themselves.  Human life cannot flourish when power and privilege are exercised for the private good, rather than the public good.  Human life cannot flourish when we fail to recognize our most basic duty to lift up those who fall, for whatever reason…

Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”  No human life can ever be fully self-sufficient.  We all fall down—and when we do, we need more than government-administered safety nets or hand-outs.  We need people—people who serve, like Jesus…

Jesus’ divine power and glory meant nothing to him compared to the people and the world God created in love.  Jesus made himself a slave to a humanity that would reject him and nail him to a cross.  But his death and resurrection set us free from slavery to sin and death.  It’s his service that saves.  His glory is his suffering and humiliation for you and for all.

Salvation is a holy trust that no matter what happens to you or what you do, the arms of Jesus will save you from falling into death. 

In the kingdom of God, true greatness is being the hands that uplift the fallen; the ears that hear the cries of the hurting; the voices that speak for the voiceless; the arms that are open for the rejected.

But this is only part of it…  Humility is recognizing that we need each other.  No one can live in complete independence and self-sufficiency.  But our need for others goes beyond the need for help in times of need.  We need others to grow in our faith.  We need relationships so that the Holy Spirit may shape and form us into the people God desires for us to be.  Sometimes, people who bless us the most will be the people that the rest of the world would dismiss as anything but great… 

In the end, we can’t really experience any real peace if there’s no one there to lift you when you’re fallen.  In the same way, there will be no real joy in life if we’re so wrapped up in our own affairs to see what a gift we can be to others, just by being there for them. 


We taste the new life of God’s kingdom in relationships of mutual belonging.  No matter what happens, Jesus will be there—and we will be there for each other.  This is greatness of life.  With all the blessings we enjoy as Americans, may this be the new American Dream.


References

Hurley, Amanda Kolson. "Will Anyone Come to the American Dream Super Mall?" 9 October 2015. The Atlantic. Article. 13 October 2015.


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Salvation in Nothingness: Mark 10:17-31 - Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

in the window by madabandonhttps.  Creative commons image on flickr
17 As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (NRSV)

One of my seminary professors wrote a book on the subject of theodicy, which is the question of why people, who are loved by God, endure suffering and pain.

He titled his book Clothed in Nothingness, and appropriately so—because nothing epitomizes the cruelty of sickness quite like the hospital gown…

It’s a loose-fitting, paper thin garment that barely covers you.  I’ve frequently seen patients wearing two of them so that because most are completely open on the backside. 

Yes, it’s a garment designed out of necessity—but for the patient it’s a garment of humiliation and helplessness.  You are clothed in nothingness.

It’s the very same nothingness of the people we encounter time and time again in the Gospels, falling at Jesus’ feet, begging for his mercy in the most awful situations. 

Today’s story is a little bit different.  A man comes to Jesus with a need—and I’m sure he was clothed much more extravagantly than most people Jesus encountered.

He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He goes on to declare that he has kept all of God’s commandments since his youth.  For all we know, this could have been true!

In his mind, he has it made, and he has great wealth to boot!  There’s just one more little thing to check of his list…

So imagine the shock when Jesus tells him: “you lack one thing.  Go, sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come and follow me.”

Treasure in heaven: that one thing he lacks.  He’s not nearly complete.  He’s completely incomplete.  He has nothing.  He is destined for nothingHe is nothing.

To inherit the Kingdom of God, he must be stripped bare of everything upon which he has built his life.  It is only in nothingness that God’s reign can take hold.  But who wants that?

One of the greatest ironies of the Christian faith is that for as much as we may love Jesus, our desire is happiness.  Much of the time, we find it in achievement and possessions.  It’s really great to be you if you’re successful and self-sufficient; people like and admire you; you don’t make mistakes and do everything well.  It’s a mighty good life to be able to wake up in the morning and put on your good health and physical fitness; your talent and tenacity; your character and charisma for all the world to see…

But it happens, sometimes by our own fault; sometimes for reasons we will never understand—that we are stripped of these things.  Everything we build our lives upon is gone from us. 

But who would voluntarily take off wealth or self-sufficiency?  Who would voluntarily submit to a divine judgment that reveals all of sins and weaknesses, including every secret thought and desire?  Who would put on nothingness?

But this is what Jesus does.  He strips himself of all divine power and glory to be crucified naked.  Yet through his death, Jesus accomplishes all things for our salvation.  Our sins are nailed to the cross and we bare them no more.  Jesus’ resurrection destroys death’s dominion over us and the world God created. 

Which leads to the other great irony of the Christian faith: that grace flourishes in times of brokenness and deprivation.  For when we are nothing—and we have nothing, Jesus will become our everything.  Jesus takes the crosses we bear and uses them to give us new life.  He draws nearer to us than he’s ever been before—for nothing is impossible with God!

This is God’s promise for all who struggle beneath the crushing weight of sin and suffering.

But for the rest of us: there is a great challenge…  If you enjoy health, intelligence, success, and a good reputation, praise GodBUT—these gifts are not your divine right, for your exclusive benefit.   Much of what we count as essential for life can destroy us in the end. 

Ultimately, the rich young man needs the saving mercies of Jesus Christ every bit as much as the lowliest beggar and most miserable sinner… Perhaps, even more…

So today, challenge yourself in this way:
1.      Ask Jesus to enact his judgment in your life.  I know that sounds nuts, but Christ’s judgment is not for destruction—but for redemption.  We need judgment to reveal the sin in our lives, especially in the ways we conceal it from ourselves.
2.      Name before Jesus every single loss and pain that afflicts you today.  Even the stuff your guilty conscience tells you that you shouldn’t be sad about…
3.      Finally, name before Jesus the things you fear losing—and the things you could never see yourself doing that, deep down, you fear Jesus may want you to do: like forgiving someone; giving away something valuable; or making a major change in your life.  Again, don’t let your guilty conscience tell you that shouldn’t be afraid of losing this or that.  Lay it all out there for Jesus. 


Bottom line: Jesus loves you!  Yet we all need to die with Christ in order to rise with him.  We need to embrace our nothingness before Jesus in order that his reign may become complete in us.